How music and friendship saved Philly noir-rock army Northern Arms

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Northern Arms (photo by Max Gaines, http://www.thechurchofmax.com)
Northern Arms (photo by Max Gaines, http://www.thechurchofmax.com)

In some ways, the story of Northern Arms is a story of redemption. It’s also a story about friendship, and being true to one’s self emotionally.

“I always felt that a lot of bands held back if they did anything emotional—like they had to do it ironically, or with a smirk,” says Eric Bandel, from the back balcony of Standard Tap. “The stuff we were working on—we just wanted it to be true. We didn’t want to hold back.”

His band mate Keith Pierce nods in agreement. Emotional honesty has always been at the core of Northern Arms’ process, leading to beautiful, complex compositions that juxtapose highs and lows, for a result that feels startlingly cathartic.

Over the past 13 years, the band’s gone through several incarnations, including the 10-person rock monolith it is today. This Friday, they’ll celebrate the release of their debut, self-titled record with a party at Johnny Brenda’s. Afterwards, they have plans to tour the East Coast. These days everything seems to be falling into place.

But that wasn’t always the case.

“[When we first started playing together] we made some really beautiful stuff, but we were fuck-ups,” says Pierce. “We couldn’t keep it together. We would play out just enough that we could sustain our drinking. We let our worldview weigh on us, and it had bad effects.”

But perhaps we should start from the beginning.

Pierce and Bandel (photo via Facebook)
Pierce and Bandel (photo via Facebook)

“It’s sounds like a fabulist tale, but it’s dead true,” says Pierce with a half-smile, when I ask about the band’s history. “It all starts out when he and I met… and we were both in love with the same woman.” He pauses to let the reality sink in.

“We got to know each other through our affects that were left at her apartment,” he continues. “And you know—we both knew she was dating other people, but neither of us wanted to think about it. Because we were in love with her.” He pauses and turns to Bandel. “But at the same time,” he adds, “there were things in the apartment that were clearly not hers. And I tried to not think about them either … but you know, I was thinking about them constantly.”

Still, the pair had never met face-to-face—until one morning when Pierce woke up hung-over at the woman’s place, grabbed a tee-shirt from the floor—and walked down the street to his buddy Jamie’s house (Mahon, of St. James & The Apostles/The Three 4 Tens) to work on some new material.

“I walked into the house …and Eric was lying on the couch,” continues Pierce. “And I remember as I walked by he gave me this quizzical look. And so I gave him this quizzical look back. But I didn’t think much of it.”

The rest, pretty much, is history.

Pierce in the studio (photo via Facebook)
Pierce in the studio (photo via Facebook)

“I remember waking up and just hearing this big, haunting sound coming down the stairs,” says Bandel. “And at the time I was playing in this band called The Holy Fallout that was sort of a thrash/metal sound. And I had had this idea for a new sound—something different— but I couldn’t really pinpoint it. And the sound coming down from the stairs—that was the sound.”

Curious, Bandel continued upstairs—and immediately noticed that Pierce was wearing his tee-shirt.

“And suddenly it all made sense,” says Pierce.

The pair quickly identified each other as the “other man” in the relationship—but formed an unlikely bond anyway, united by their failed relationship, and the pursuit of decadence that lures many men in their 20s. They soon started gigging together, with Pierce on guitar and vocals and Bandel on piano, with different percussion instruments strapped to his body.

Together, they called themselves Northern Arms and quickly, their vintage-, cabaret- and gospel-inspired tunes won them some gigs, and they even self-recorded (but never mastered) a record in 2004, titled Bridge Ballads and the Throats of Dogs. They also drank a lot and wallowed in their shared heartbreak. And like many great rockers before them, propelled by their own vices, after a few years, they burnt out.

For the next 8 years, Northern Arms went on hiatus. Bandel met a woman and moved to Brooklyn; he gave up drinking in 2006. Pierce lived “the hermetic life” for a while then moved to Brooklyn too, before ending up in a detox clinic, “mad and at end the of the line.” Seeking a new environment, he packed up and moved to North Captiva Island, a small island off the coast of Florida with no cars, only golf carts—and quit drinking for good in January 2011. It was finally, in his words, “time to rebuild.”

In summer 2012—more than 6 years after the pair parted ways—they finally reconnected. “I had hung up my piano,” says Bandel, “and had written music out of my life.” The pair started talking, and then, suddenly “we ended up talking every day.”

Excited to have his friend back, Bandel rented a car and drove all the way to Florida. The pair holed up for 4 days—and something miraculous happened.

“We finished this song,” continues Pierce, “that we had started years ago.” The song—“Last Horse,” on Northern Arms—was one of their best yet, a gentle slow-burner about love and support in times of need.

After finishing the song, Pierce sent it out to some friends and family in Philly. The feedback was very positive. Newly sober and spiritually renewed, the pair moved back to Philly, and in March 2013, were invited by Ryan Kattner of Man Man to open for his band at Union Transfer.

“And so we got an army together,” says Pierce with a grin. It was their first show in 7 years—and yet almost everyone they recruited is still involved with the band now.

“It was just so surprising because everyone was so excited,” says Bandel.

Guitarist Travis Weissman, who used to work with Bandel, was living in Portland at the time, and took a train all the way to Philly to play the show. Vocalist/percussionist Heather Brann introduced Pierce and Bandel to saxophonist Michael Tramontana—and Kenneth Brune, Angel Ocana, David Kain, and Jeff White all climbed aboard soon as well. The final missing piece was vocalist PJ Brown, who sings lead on “Flesh of Arms,” and who Pierce and Bandel describe as “like Nina Simone and Johnny Cash vacationing in Twin Peaks.” Together, Northern Arms are truly an army.

The new line-up has allowed Northern Arms to grow in scope, creating grand, lofty concoctions that hit you with their force and power. The multiplicity of voices allows for complex compositions whose melodies and countermelodies work together to balance dark and light in a Beethovenian way. “It’s really unlike anything I ever imagined,” says Pierce sheepishly.

The band’s debut record, Northern Arms, will be their debut statement to the world. As for naming the record after the band, the pair agree it was simply the right move.

“Northern Arms can mean a lot of things,” says Bandel. “It can be religious; it can be about war, or the apocalypse. I like to think about it as that feeling I always wanted to get from church, but never could quite reach.”

Pierce agrees. “It’s come to mean something really beautiful to me,” he says. “It’s about yearning for transcendence, and the tragic nature of that yearning. But we can still find beauty in the temporal—and that’s what Northern Arms is all about.”

It’s been a turbulent journey, but Northern Arms have finally arrived. And the results are simply breathtaking.

Northern Arms play Johnny Brenda’s on Friday, May 30. The show is 21+ and tickets are $10; more information can be found via the venue’s website.

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